Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

'Broken' Public Spaces in Theory and in Practice

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

'Broken' Public Spaces in Theory and in Practice

Article excerpt

This examination of recent UK 'liveability' discourse identifies five distinct policy areas which this discourse seeks to embrace. It critiques liveability's strong emphasis on visual order, its problematic sense of the public interest, and its limited aspirations for the planning of the public realm. It analyses the philosophy of governance underpinning the UK government's liveability agenda, in its attempts to adopt two specific areas of ideology and policy from the USA: for cities, the urban entrepreneurialism of place marketing, government-facilitated gentrification and Business Improvement Districts; and for individuals, personal responsibility, the criminalisation of poverty and difference, and zero-tolerance 'law and order' policing. The paper suggests how public realm planning might engage in more nuanced and socially inclusive ways with the concept of liveability, by highlighting the few proactive, strategic, socially inclusive dimensions of the liveability agenda, and drawing on previous studies of unregulated, non-commercial social behaviour in public spaces.

This paper critiques the 'liveability' agenda recently expressed by the UK government, examining its discourse and its principles. It explores how the logic of liveability makes a range of government policy actions sensible and acceptable. Critiquing the liveability agenda requires understanding the general philosophy of governance that underpins it, and the translation of distinctive language, policy and ideology from their origins in the USA. Analysis in this paper highlights the central emphasis of UK liveability discourse on the production and maintenance of the appearance of order in the urban public realm, which includes making some of the people who use spaces more 'orderly'. Put simply, liveability policy begins from the premise that public spaces are 'broken'. This is felt to have a significant impact on community pride and sense of safety. It is also believed to hamper prospects for investment, and therefore policies are put forward which not only improve the appearance of public spaces, but which also target the people who are believed to be responsible for ruination. Considered as an isolated issue, a public realm which is visually attractive is of course generally preferable to the oft-mentioned disrepair and uncoordinated clutter of many UK streets and squares. Yet, the assumption that certain kinds of orderly appearances invariably mean higher aesthetic quality or an overall increase in quality of life remains untested; as Helms notes (2008, 15), 'orderliness as value, norm and goal is constructed as unambiguous and ... thus doesn't require further investigation'. The strong emphasis on visual order within liveability discourse and policy, and the consequences of this emphasis for certain users of the city, raises several critical questions about fundamental precepts of town planning: the scope of the public interest, whose values are prioritised and why, how the public interest is served through public and private actions and regulation, the capacity of physical planning solutions to deliver social objectives, and whether planning and public policy should always be understood as forces that enhance orderliness.

A reading of recent UK liveability discourse and policy suggests that the broad umbrella concept of liveability is deceptive. The UK government's plans and policies for liveability ostensibly focus strategies of analysis, design and management on users' needs and users' perceptions of environmental quality. Yet, the strong emphasis of public policy and investment on the visual order of the public realm serves the needs and preferences of only those citizens who have the time and money and the right to consume the more orderly public spaces that result. The cleansing and re-aestheticisation of public spaces encourages and rewards private-sector expenditure in inner-city areas, in terms of both individual consumption and large-scale real-estate development. …

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